Mads Mikkelsen has total mastery of his body and is impossible of betraying a single emotion. So much of The Hunt focuses on his thin eyes that still sparkle in moments of joy and even when widened show a coiled rage that could spill over but remains tight. After Casino Royale, Valhalla Rising, and his superb imprint on Hannibal – Mads is in a league of performers that include Liv Ullman and Peter Lorre, we can guess how they feel, but will only allow us so close.
Mads’ performance is crucial to The Hunt, which holds him in such close regard that it’s a surprise in itself that we never get to know more about the man. The camera of director, and co-screenwriter, Thomas Vinterberg hovers almost irritatingly close to the reserved Lucas (Mads). It’s searching for a betrayal, something that shows that the pain Lucas is feeling may not be undeserved, that Lucas deserves judgment. Lucas' strength is to keep the pain from consuming him, the films is in patiently allowing that struggle to play out.
Before we get to know Lucas, we see that his life is under constant scrutiny from the innocent eyes of his quiet village. A collection of portly neighbors welcomes Lucas into the polar bear club where he is the only one to emerge from the mass of friendly bodies fully clothed. Even in this mass of warmth and happiness he feels the need to keep himself protected. This lends further caution to his relationships, where it takes the constant advances of Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport) to lull him out of his careful friendships.
The Hunt is about what happens when Lucas becomes an unexpected target. But instead of Lucas being on the run from the law, or from sinister forces, Lucas becomes the target of an innocent lie. One of Lucas’ students, the withdrawn Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), tells another teacher that Lucas exposed himself to her. She is mixing worlds, unaware yet that her words have grave consequences, and unable to separate the way her brother teased her with pornographic images, to the friendship that the adult Lucas provides to her.
The scenario is so carefully laid out that it is nearly impossible to hold judgment on anyone. Everyone assumes the worst of Lucas, and who wouldn’t when confronted with an accusation like that? Tobias Lindholm and Vinterberg’s screenplay is a careful balancing act of reactionary emotional behavior from the angry and confused townspeople and the Lucas’ quiet strength. Yes, there are explosive moments, but are formed from the easy familiarity that small communities develop over the years and how terrifying it is that someone could betray their most basic rules and trust.
We’re placed in an uncomfortable position, one that the writing does not deviate from. The story is about the insidious way the slightest suggestion of evil is capable of corrupting not just the accused, but of the people who feel as though they are doing a moral good. Lucas is not a hero, he is just someone who tries to survive the storm of insults and abuses that are thrown at him now every day. But even then, we see lines crossed and then The Hunt violates one of the coveted audience-to-filmmaker rules regarding pets. Constantly the scenario asks us to consider what sins, if any, are justified in order to punish evil.
This emphasis of the sins visited on Lucas results in a style that keeps us at arm’s length and bathes him in the moral judgments of the town. There is no indication that what we see is ever really from Lucas’ point of view. When he first finds out about the lie he is bathed in a blood red light that seems to follow him throughout his home and avoids his lover. Even without the full details of the accusation Lucas is already bathed in sin. Then, throughout the little village, we see that Lucas is already behind bars. The children and adults all see Lucas through various cages, be they the posts of a fence, or the grid of a window. It even knows when to pull away, allowing us some time to digest Lucas’ fate while his son makes an ill-fated attempt to prove his father’s innocence.
Which brings everything back to Mads and his nearly perfect performance. So much of the film is in close-up of Lucas, be it when he is conversing with children or confronting his assailants. Despite the stylistic flourishing around him Mads never allows his performance to be influenced by the deep saturation of color and camera violating his space. Even when the world has painted him as a damned soul, Lucas shows his confusion and fear, and just when they think that he breaks down to the point where he will admit anything, he cuts free with a terrifying reserve of strength. The screenplay keeps us at an arm’s length from Lucas, just as Mads allows us close enough to feel but not enough to understand.
The Hunt is Denmark's entry for the Academy Awards this year. Vinterberg’s direction and Lindholm’s input on the screenplay make it one of the top contenders for the award this year. But Mads Mikkelsen’s performance is the year’s best, reminding us that our emotional connections are rarely the stuff of words, but those unspoken depths that a pained glance can only hint at.
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg.
Screenplay written by Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm.
Starring Mads Mikkelsen.